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Collection of 'suspicious activity' reports is challenged

Sep 24, 2013

San Jose Mercury

Surveillance: Civil rights groups seek end to collection of government reports on 'suspicious activity' by Americans

By Thomas Peele and Josh Richman

Posted: 09/19/2013 06:47:05 PM PDT

SAN FRANCISCO -- Be careful if you're heading out to buy a lot of bottled water or photograph a California landmark. The government is watching, and it may put details about what you're doing into a giant antiterrorism database, especially if you appear to be Arab or Muslim.

More than 1,800 "suspicious activity reports" collected by law enforcement officers and shared with federal agencies through clearinghouses called "fusion centers" that were released Thursday showed for the first time in California that activities like photographing buildings, flying the U.S. flag upside down, or even just giving the cold shoulder to a neighbor may result in the firm rap of FBI agents on your door and demands that you explain yourself.

This is especially true for Arabs, Muslims and people of South Asian descent, who are more often the subject of the secret reports, the value of which are dubious and have never been shown to have resulted in a terrorism-related arrest, members of civil rights groups said Thursday.

The government "should not be putting us in databases as potential terrorists when we have nothing to hide and haven't done anything wrong," said Linda Lye, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. "This is wrong and it needs to stop."

A computer analysis by this newspaper of the documents released Thursday showed that about half of the suspicious activity reports resulted in the FBI interviewing the people named in them about their activities.

A U.S. Justice Department spokesman said Thursday the agency would not comment on the release of the reports.

In a letter sent Thursday to Attorney General Eric Holder, the ACLU called for immediate reforms to the post-Sept.11 national "Suspicious Activities Reporting Program," in which activities such as "photography, videography and note taking" are considered "inherently suspicious" and recorded.

The reports, obtained under state Public Records Act and federal Freedom of Information Act requests, came from the so-called fusion centers in central and Southern California. Similar requests to the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, based in San Francisco, were denied, Lye said.

Mike Sena, the Northern California fusion center's director and president of the National Fusion Center Association, said the Suspicious Activity Report initiative is merely a more organized way of organizing and vetting the sort of tips and leads people have been passing along for years.

Sena said his center -- one of 72 across the country -- won't release its data because it could compromise criminal investigations or investigative practices. But he said his center, like all the fusion centers, has a formal privacy policy. In addition, Sena said, he also has a full-time privacy officer.

"We take it very seriously," Sena said. "Our role is protecting public safety, but also protecting privacy, civil rights and civil liberties."

Of about 800 such tips and leads his fusion center receives per year, only about 100 meet the standards for being passed along to the FBI and the area's Joint Terrorism Task Force, Sena said.

He added that others deemed unrelated to terrorism but perhaps related to local crimes are referred to local police. Those that aren't referred are retained for one year, he said, but anything that meets the standard of being criminal intelligence can be kept for up to five years.

A report earlier this year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office ripped the Suspicious Activities Reporting Program, saying that average Americans going about their everyday lives were getting swept up in the program and that their names were being retained in databases.

A bipartisan report issued in October 2012 by the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs' Investigations Subcommittee suggested that the fusion centers sometimes forward intelligence of uneven quality -- "oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens' civil liberties and Privacy Act protections, occasionally taken from already-published public sources, and more often than not, unrelated to terrorism."

The reports the ACLU released Thursday from Southern and central California included details like these:

"Suspicious ME (Middle Eastern) males buying several large pallets of water."

"Female subject taking photos of the Folsom Post Office."

A police officer in the city of Elk Grove "reported on a suspicious individual in his neighborhood" who was a doctor of Middle Eastern ancestry. The officer thought the doctor might be a terrorist because he was "very unfriendly."

"Suspicious photocopy of Folsom Dam by Chinese Nationals."

A man "nonchalantly taking photos" inside a Los Angeles subway car.

A university art professor from San Diego taking photos in an industrial area.

Someone writing anti-government slogans on the wall of a room at UC Davis.

A "noticeable increase" of female Muslims wearing veils and burqas at a shopping mall.

Someone taking photos of the Al Zampa Bridge over the Carquinez Strait between Contra Costa and Solano counties.

A trucker flying the American flag upside down on a big rig.

Four "clean-cut Middle Eastern males speaking excitedly in a foreign language."

"They still think that it is legitimate and constitutional to treat someone as a possible terrorist because of their race" or skin color, said Yaman Salahi, a lawyer with the Asian Law Caucus.

Although suspicious activity reports for the Bay Area were not obtained, he said he routinely hears from Muslims and Asians across the region reporting that they had been questioned by FBI agents.

Hal Bergman, a 29-year-old freelance photographer from Los Angeles, said that he was taking stock photos from a public street of an oil refinery at the port of Los Angeles two years ago when a security guard approached him. After a brief conversation, Bergman continued his work.

Two weeks later, there was a pounding on his door. Two FBI agents, he said, were carrying a stack of documents, a photocopy of his driver's license and were demanding to know what he was doing at the port, who he worked for and why anyone would want a photo of a refinery. The security guard had filed a suspicious activity report.

"It is a permanent record," he said of the inclusion of his name in the fusion center databases. "Who has access to this? Am I going to have a problem flying or getting across the border?

Staff writer Daniel J. Willis contributed to this report. Contact Thomas Peele at and follow him


ACLU says domestic spying goes too far

Associated Press Fri Sep 20, 2013 11:24 AM

SAN FRANCISCO — Two men of Middle Eastern descent were reported buying pallets of water at a grocery store. A police sergeant reported concern about a doctor “who is very unfriendly.” And photographers of all races and nationalities have been reported taking snapshots of post offices, bridges, dams and other structures.

The American Civil Liberties Union and several other groups released 1,800 “suspicious activity reports” Thursday, saying they show the inner-workings of a domestic surveillance program that is sweeping up innocent Americans and forever placing their names in a counterterrorism database.

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the federal government created a multibillion-dollar information-sharing program meant to put local, state and federal officials together to analyze intelligence at sites called fusion centers.

Instead, according to a Senate report the Government Accountability Office and now the ACLU, the program has duplicated the work of other agencies, has appeared rudderless and hasn’t directly been responsible for any terror-related prosecutions. According to the GAO, the government maintains 77 fusion centers throughout the country and their operations are funded by federal and local sources.

The ACLU obtained about 1,700 suspicious activity reports filed with the Sacramento office through a California Public Record Acts request. Another 100 were submitted as part of a court case in Los Angeles filed by the ACLU on behalf of photographers who say they are being harassed by Southern California law officials.

The documents do not appear to show valuable counterterrorism intelligence.

A report from Bakersfield, phoned in to a police officer by a “close personal friend,” describes two men who appear to be of Middle Eastern descent stocking up on water.

Another report shows a Lodi police sergeant “reporting on a suspicious individual in his neighborhood.” The sergeant, whose name was redacted, said he “has been long concerned about a residence in his neighborhood occupied by a Middle Eastern male adult physician who is very unfriendly.”

A third report states, “An off-duty supervising dispatcher with Sacramento P.D. noticed a female subject taking pictures of the outside of the post office in Folsom on Riley Street this morning. The female departed as a passenger in a silver Mazda.”

The fusion center project was a target of a blistering Congressional report last year complaining that too many innocent Americans engaging in routine and harmless behavior have become ensnared in the program.

The ACLU and others are calling on the Obama administration to make overhauls so that only activities with legitimate links to terrorism investigations are reported.

“We want the administration to stop targeting racial and religious minorities,” ACLU lawyer Linda Lye said.

A Senate report last year concluded that the program has improperly collected information and produced little valuable intelligence on terrorism. The report suggested the program’s intent ballooned far beyond anyone’s ability to control.

What began as an attempt to put local, state and federal officials in the same room analyzing the same intelligence has instead cost huge amounts of money for data-mining software, flat screen televisions and, in Arizona, two fully equipped Chevrolet Tahoes that are used for commuting, investigators found.

The lengthy, bipartisan report was a scathing evaluation of what the Department of Homeland Security has held up as a crown jewel of its security efforts.

A Homeland Security spokesman countered that the program is “safe and effective.”

“In recent years, reporting of suspicious activity by the public has led to the arrest of multiple individuals planning mass casualty attacks,” Peter Boogaard said. “These programs are governed by robust privacy and civil rights and civil liberty protections.”

Homeland Security Department spokesman Matthew Chandler at the time the Senate report was released called it “out of date, inaccurate and misleading.”

He said it focused entirely on information being produced by fusion centers and didn’t consider the benefit to involved officials from receiving intelligence from the federal government.